Imperial Unity

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

Ideas alone do not make empires:

The problem was not that men and women in Mediterranean world stopped believing in the ideal of universal empire, nor even that elites stopped identifying with a broader imperial identity. The real problem was that those who inherited the intellectual legacy of Catholic Empire and Universal Caliphate did not also inherit the administrative tools needed to administer one. The Dark Ages was a time where men could dream of empire but could not build one. In Europe the decisive moment came piecemeal to different parts of the continent, first as the Carolingian empire collapsed, then when the Caliphate of Cordoba followed in its footsteps, and finally after the Investiture conflict and the civil war that followed left the Salians in only nominal control of their realm. Power was so forcefully decentralized in the decades that followed each collapse that some historians argue we should not describe the feudal structures that followed as “governments” at all. Europeans of this era did not forget how to dream, but they had forgotten how to govern. It would take centuries of state building until Europeans had regained the ability to field armies, administer taxes, and incorporate new conquests into their kingdoms. The slate was wiped clean clean. By these new states became strong enough to extend their control over distant lands, the memory of Rome ha dimmed and identity had reverted to the centers of local power where state building had begun.

This process never happened in China. The Chinese also continued to dream of unity — but more importantly, they never completely lost their capacity to transform their dreams into reality. The imperial center was destroyed, but the bureaucratic structures that held the imperial system together at the lower levels of society lived on. The structures used to govern China and wring taxes from the Chinese people did change over the course of Chinese history, but there was never anything comparable to the total administrative collapse seen in early medieval Europe or the late medieval Near East. The old regime had been decentralized, but not destroyed. This not just made it easier for the next generation of Chinese warlords to mobilize the armies needed to reconquer all of China, but it also made it far easier for them to incorporate what they conquered as fiscally productive parts of their domain.

Each period of unification deepened the connections between different regions of China, making it that much easier for warlords, rebels, and foreign conquerors to administer their new conquests then next time China fell apart. It’s a classic example of virtuous cycle at work. The more time China spent unified the easier it was to unify it in the future. This led to one of the more striking patterns of Chinese history: each major period of disunity was shorter than the last.

The logic of Schelling points and the ideals of universal empire played a part in all this, and of course the longer China was unified the stronger these ideals would be. However, as the Western experience suggests, imperial ideology may have been a necessary condition of unification, but it was not a sufficient one. Ideas alone do not make empires. China was never an empire of the mind. Like all else built by the hands of man, China was a creation of blood, toil, and fear.


  1. lucklucky says:

    But ideas build culture.

    There is need of a empire if everyone accept your ideas?

  2. James Wilson says:

    It is precisely the total collapse of Rome that made the Renaissance even possible centuries later. Water can flow no higher than it’s reservoir, and none did. The unusually static nature of the Chinese civilization is explained by it’s continuity.

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